Government Failure or Political Failure?

I’ve seen (and received) arguments that what happened in the preparation for and aftermath of Katrina was a political failure, in the sense that we simply elected the wrong guys and if we just would elect the right ones, all this would go away. Such things aren’t inherent to government, they argue, just the current, exceptional crop of incompetents. This accounts for both the response to the crisis as well as the failure to fund flood control measures.

I have some sympathy with the view that there is more than typical incompetence at work here, particularly in the leadership of FEMA. However, I maintain that the failures are pretty typical of a national government of a large country in effectively dealing with the sorts of things that insurance, private businesses, and private charities do much more effectively. Furthermore, the failure to address flood control started before January 2001 and is not a failure of funding, but a failure of budget allocation caused by just the sort of short-term pork projects that are endemic to a representative democracy–which is why it’s so important to keep the feds out of anything that they don’t absolutely have to be involved in.

Fortunately, Russell Roberts has summed up the two key examples that, if not refuting the political failure argument, should give its proponents pause to check for leaks in their rhetorical boat.

The first is the fact that over ten thousand people died in a natural disaster, and the government failed to act quickly enough, especially ignoring the elderly and poor. Damn those free market Republicans! Oh, wait, I meant the socialized-medicine-having French, from a story entitled France heat wave death toll set at 14,802.

The new estimate comes a day after the French Parliament released a harshly worded report blaming the deaths on a complex health system, widespread failure among agencies and health services to coordinate efforts, and chronically insufficient care for the elderly.

Sounds like it would take more than voting for Al Gore or Hillarycare.

Oh, and turns out the Army Corps of Engineers had a fair amount of money in Louisiana…unfortunately, they just didn’t spend it on flood control.

In Katrina’s wake, Louisiana politicians and other critics have complained about paltry funding for the Army Corps in general and Louisiana projects in particular. But over the five years of President Bush’s administration, Louisiana has received far more money for Corps civil works projects than any other state, about $1.9 billion; California was a distant second with less than $1.4 billion, even though its population is more than seven times as large.

Much of that Louisiana money was spent to try to keep low-lying New Orleans dry. But hundreds of millions of dollars have gone to unrelated water projects demanded by the state’s congressional delegation and approved by the Corps, often after economic analyses that turned out to be inaccurate. Despite a series of independent investigations criticizing Army Corps construction projects as wasteful pork-barrel spending, Louisiana’s representatives have kept bringing home the bacon.

Damn Republicans, voting for pork!

Oh, wait:

For example, after a $194 million deepening project for the Port of Iberia flunked a Corps cost-benefit analysis, Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.) tucked language into an emergency Iraq spending bill ordering the agency to redo its calculations. The Corps also spends tens of millions of dollars a year dredging little-used waterways such as the Mississippi River Gulf Outlet, the Atchafalaya River and the Red River — now known as the J. Bennett Johnston Waterway, in honor of the project’s congressional godfather — for barge traffic that is less than forecast.

If this is a political failure, it’s a failure of the entire political system, not just a few miscreants here and there. If you want to preserve government power, you can either reduce political control of the system, which is more like the system France has, or you can attempt to give more political control, even further rewarding short-term political ends over long-term planning.

Or, you can try taking government out of the equation when it has consistently failed to address a problem and there are viable alternatives. Ending federal flood insurance would, in the long-term, prevent people from living in flood-prone areas. In the short term, letting private charities handle disaster response would get food and first aid get to disaster areas. If there are security problems, you can either use private forces or call the government in to restore order to those pockets of insecurity. However, if people get enough to eat they’ll be less likely to loot or riot, and areas with no instability can get aid instead of waiting for the last pockets of resistance to be quelled.

Why do I care so much? Self-interest. I live in an area more likely than most to experience a terrorist-caused disaster on the scale of Katrina. After having seen government try to respond to Hugo and Katrina, I can’t count on them to help. It’s that simple. But right now government policy is to prevent people who could help to reach me. I want to remove that obstacle, and if it means relying entirely on the people who have proven they can help, so be it. I’m willing to bet my life on that. Are you sure you want to bet your life on a bunch who mandate that firefighters get sexual harassment training before they can come help?

Disasters always are disastrous–hence the name. They are marked by suffering and pain and loss. But it doesn’t have to be this bad. At the very least, fans and foes of government should unite to end the practice of blocking private charity to disaster areas. Can we at least agree on that?